Telling Tales 188
“Fatal dangers,” said Bulat.
“Imagine,” said Ivan.
The soldier nearly split his head with the size of his yawn. “I can no longer stay awake, fatal dangers or no. Wake me if there are any problems. You can take the first watch tonight?”
Ivan urged him, “Sleep!” and the soldier was already gone, his chin tucked against his chest and his back curled against a tree. The prince stoked the fire and gathered the kindling and logs around him to keep it close at hand. The nights were not especially cold or long at the moment, but he would need something to stay awake. He knew that Bulat expected to wake after a few hours, but Ivan didn’t doubt for a second that he had faced Kirbit’s army on both of his sallies behind them. “Whatever trick you used, it has exhausted you and you deserve the rest.”
He considered Vasilisa Kirbitievna in the tent where slept. “She is undoubtedly correct that nobility comes in action, not in reward. That is feat indeed, for it would mean that the meanest peasant acting from the purest motives would be grander than the highest prince acting from the basest.” This was not a natural thought to Ivan, who had been raised to consider nobility of birth and nobility of action to be one and the same. “Perhaps it is the case that we can rise above or sink below our station, be a noble or base prince, a noble or base peasant. How close could a noble peasant and a base prince come?”
As the youngest child, he was familiar with less than noble princes. His elder brothers were ambitious and could be ruthless even in their joking. The oldest was next in line for their father’s kingdom and the middle brother chafed at being so close to the position without any real hope of getting it. Ivan had never had that problem, being last in line. His brothers laughed and called him “Prince-errant” or simply “Knight” if they thought the latter would cut him more deeply. Despite this, Ivan did not consider his brothers to be bad people. He did not choose to be the way that they were but he certainly understood their position. “I suppose that is what Vasilisa Kirbitievna means when she says her father is not a bad man. There are a great many depths inside each of us.”
The motivations of his old friend the soldier were more mysterious. Why would he continue forward, always soldiering and never stopping? That was no way to live and it was a certainty to die, and sooner rather than later. “Is there something in our nature? I am a prince as are my brothers, yet we are not alike, so there must be many ways to be a prince. Equally, there must be many ways to be a soldier.” That was clear enough, as the soldier had not served in an army for years and years. “Once a soldier, always a soldier? A carpenter? Or Kirbit? Once a bad man, always a bad man?”
These thoughts and many others ran through Ivan’s head as the fire waned and the night deepened and it was not until dawn that he realized he had fallen asleep. Bulat slept where he had been all night, unmoving, but the tent in which Princess Vasilisa Kirbitievna was gone, and the princess along with it.